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New York Times

New York, Thursday, October 2, 2003


Military Practices Downing Hijacked Airliners, General Says



WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Air Force pilots practice weekly and are psychologically ready to shoot down civilian airliners in any new attack on America like Sept. 11, the general in charge of domestic defense said Thursday.

The chief of the U.S. military's Northern Command also said better cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies had minimized the risk of downing an innocent civilian passenger jet.

F-16"We practice it several times a week. Sometimes we practice three or four times a week -- the connectivity and having pilots airborne and go through mock exercises," Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart told reporters in an interview.

He said pilots and ground controllers were screened to make sure they would not refuse an order to shoot down a suspicious airliner packed with civilians such as the hijacked jets that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Unequivocally, to the American people, we believe that we have the right responsibilities and authorities established. We have the right rules of engagement," Eberhart said.

He refused to reveal detailed rules but said a very careful chain of command of both identification and final authority had been established to order a shoot-down despite natural hesitancy.

"Somebody just can't get up on the radio channel and say 'Hey, I'm the president of the United States, shoot that down."' Eberhart said. "They (pilots and ground controllers) have to be certified in how you use all this authentication material."

Mentally Prepared

But he said hundreds of pilots in the military's North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), responsible for joint protection of the United States and Canada, were regularly screened to make sure that they were neither "trigger happy" nor "trigger hesitant" in an emergency.

"Frankly, we have long discussions with people to see if they're mentally prepared to do this -- pilots and operators on the ground, too, for the air defense system," he said.

"As we talk our way through this with our people, the important thing is they know we have done everything possible," Eberhart told reporters. "This is our last resort. And if we don't do this, innocent people on the ground are going to die, too."

He said that pilots as well as crews operating anti-aircraft missiles around Washington area have been carefully instructed about who can order a shoot-down and drilled in codes that must be provided by those giving the orders.

"They are quizzed on the rules of engagement to make sure they understand what they can and cannot do, what authority they must hear from, how they must hear that," Eberhart said.

Eberhart said the Northern Command, which became fully operational last month, is exchanging intelligence and aircraft radar information with both federal and state government agencies on terrorism threats to the United States.

"We don't want to be just good at cleaning up" after an attack, he added, stressing that the aim was to prevent strikes ranging from chemical and biological weapons to explosives and possible hijackings.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


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